The Commentators’ Bible: Deuteronomy: The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, edited, translated, and annotated by Michael Carasik. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2015. 296 pages.
Michael Carasik teaches Biblical Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the weekday Torah reader at Historic Congregation Kesher Israel in Center City Philadelphia. He received his Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University. He is the author of Theologies of the Mind in Biblical Israel. In addition to this volume, he is also the editor, translator, and annotator of The Commentators’ Bible on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
The Commentators’ Bible series is unusual among commentaries. This series contains not just one commentator’s thoughts on a book of the Bible, but rather several commentators’. In addition, since the commentators often quote the Talmud, there are actually many commentators’ thoughts on Deuteronomy.
This commentary is a Miqra’ot Gedolot “Large-Format Bible” (xi). It is laid out the same as the other books in this series. Each page has the Hebrew text, two English translations (the new and old JPS translations), Abarbanel’s questions, some abridged and/or revised comments from Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Nahmanides, and selections from the Masorah and a few other commentators.
Since this commentary has the standard pattern for most commentaries (text and comments), it may be more prudent to give a short biography and samples from the four major commentators. This reviewer picked three sections of interest from Deuteronomy: the prophet in 18:15; the writer of chapter 34; and the burial of Moses in 34:5-6.
- Rashi was the standard medieval commentator on the Bible and Talmud. His comments combine the straightforward (literal) sense of a passage and the Sages’ midrashic comments as he saw fit.
- “15 A prophet from among your own people, like myself. Just as I [Moses] am from among you. God will also raise up my successor from among you. And it will go on this way from prophet to prophet” (127).
- “5 So Moses the servant of the Lord died there. Could Moses possibly have died and then written, ‘So Moses the servant of the Lord died there?’ Rather, Moses wrote up to this point and Joshua wrote from v. 5 on. (See Josh. 24:26) R. Meir asks, ‘Could the Torah have been missing anything when Moses said, “Take this book of Teaching and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant” [31:26]? Rather, the Holy One dictated and Moses wrote it down in tears’” (257).
- “6 He buried him. The Holy One in His glory buried him. R. Ishmael says, ‘He buried himself.’ This is one of the three places where R. Ishmael interprets the object marker et in this fashion; for the others see Lev. 22:16 and Num. 6:13” (258).
- Rashbam was Rashi’s grandson. He favored the straightforward sense even when it contradicted the Sages’ midrashic comments.
- “But God would indeed raise up for the Israelites such prophets who would believe in the Holy One, as Moses did, and who would speak truth from Him …” (127).
- “Even in death he [Moses] did what was required of him, like a servant” (257).
- “Rather, ‘one buried him,’ that is, ‘he was buried’ (OJPS). The same syntax occurs in ‘Can horses gallop on a rock?’ Can it be plowed with oxen?’ (Amos 6:12), where the Hebrew literally asks, ‘Can [some unknown] he plow it with oxen?’ Since no one knew his burial place, the one who buried him was also unidentified, and the text simply writes that ‘someone’ buried him” (258).
- Ibn Ezra was a contemporary of Rashbam. For Ibn Ezra, his comments must agree with the grammar of the text and his reason.
- “This [18:15] obviously refers to Joshua … There is further proof: We do not find that any other prophet than Joshua entered the land with the Israelites. But the general principle presumably also applies to every prophet that would arise after Moses” (127).
- “He [Moses] buried himself by entering a burial cave in the valley. The pronoun is used with this meaning also in ‘the foremen of the Israelites found themselves in trouble’ (Exod. 5:19) and the ‘shepherds tended themselves instead of tending the flock’ (Ezek. 34:8)” (258).
- Nahmanides was the last of the four commentators and also a kabbalist.
- “But this verse also says ‘from your midst’. This hints that there is no prophecy outside the land of Israel … And prophecy exists only ‘among your own people,’ for God has given you higher status than the other nations, and will not let His spirit rest on any but you. Like myself. See the comments of Rashi and Ibn Ezra. But in my opinion ‘like myself’ means ‘he will be reliable as a prophet of the Lord, and you can believe him just as you believe me.’ Similarly, the fact that he will be ‘from among your own people’ also implies that you will be able to trust what he says” (127).
- “The Torah begins with an act of kindness, clothing the naked – ‘the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife’ (Gen. 3:21) – and ends with one, burying the dead (Bekhor Shor)” (258).
This reviewer found the glossary of terms and list of names at the end of the book sufficient. It is useful that each page has Abarbanel’s questions. Those questions give a clue to what the commentators are attempting to answer in that section of Deuteronomy.
The Jewish Bible Quarterly called this book “A useful volume for those not fluent in Hebrew who want the experience of engaging with the Torah text and the traditional commentaries” (62). This reviewer would heartily agree. As the above selections show, this book is akin to hearing a debate that transcends centuries (if not millennia). One commentator has his say, then another, then another, etc. The next commentator may address what the previous said or may move on to a different subject. Like in any debate, some comments are helpful, some are insightful, some are thought-provoking, some are off-topic, some are dubious, some are better left not stated. (The above selections show these different possibilities, maybe even in the same quotation.)
This commentary is useful, if only for this one reason (though there are more): it offers a glimpse into the Old Testament that is different from one’s norm. This commentary opens up millennia of research, thought, and study on Deuteronomy. It not only gets the reader into the fascinating world of medieval Jewish scholarship but also further back into the Talmudic era, if not beyond. That is a world with a few concerns, but a world worth exploring.
To assist the reader of this commentary, who is unfamiliar with the referenced people and items, a list of important terms is also provided. This list expands on the list provided in the commentary.